Bard Challenge #24
Big (1000+ words)
Solstice Tradition: Mistletoe
Disclaimer: A Xena Warrior Princess fanfic: I don't own any of the characters. An alternative to the Ring trilogy with a nod at You Are There.
Caught Between Ragnarok and A Hard Place
by Wildcat Winnie
It was cold, the coldest winter in living memory. From the summit of Mount Olympus to the shores of Piraeus, all of Greece was covered in snow; an icy blanket to freeze the body and the soul. It was so cold that Xena and Gabrielle were driven from their usual campsite under the stars to seek refuge in the warmth of a tavern. The tavern, every tavern, was so busy that even with her fiercest stare, Xena had trouble getting them seats at a table. It was all Gabrielle could do to stop the cold and increasingly impatient Warrior Princess putting the pinch on someone. When eventually they were seated, each with a bowl of hot broth and a flagon of wine in front of them, Xena began to thaw a little. All around them the talk was of the weather. How much trouble it was causing: crops destroyed, livestock starving, carts caught in the snow; had anyone seen the traffic jams on the road to Marathon? A man could get there quicker on foot. How unnatural it was and who was to blame: could it possibly have anything to do with the trouble the Gods were now in, this being their twilight and all? And would that last guy who came in SHUT THAT DOOR! letting all the cold in, were you brought up in a barn? For Hades' sake, what does a guy have to do to keep warm around here?
"Now that's a good question" muttered Xena, polishing off her broth with a hunk of bread.
"Well I can think of something" Gabrielle said suggestively "Do they have any free rooms?"
"Booked up" Xena's tone was non-committal.
Like that's ever stopped you before. Gabrielle thought. Where there's a will... "You could ask again. Nicely."
"Already did. Twice."
Yeah, right. Well I guess there's no will, then.
"You gonna finish your soup?" Xena grinned.
Gabrielle put one hand protectively round her bowl, with the other wielded her spoon like a sword.
"OK, OK! I'll go up to the bar and get seconds. Want some?"
Sure. And the soup. Gabrielle shook her head, lost in thought.
What did a girl have to do to get the Warrior Princess into bed? How many hints had she dropped and Xena ignored them all. Was the woman blind and deaf? Or just plain dumb? Perhaps Gabrielle should just come out and say it plain: Xena, I want to sleep with you. But she knew she wouldn't, couldn't. She'd tried a couple of times. Practised the words in her head for days beforehand, and when the moment came, she'd been overwhelmed with a dread that stopped her in her tracks. It wasn't simply a fear-of-rejection thing, it was something other: not natural, not rational, something that had the trademarks of godly interference. But her gods were now dying and their powers gone. Gabrielle had this crazy notion that there must be something else out there. She couldn't shake the feeling that all the world was a stage and that their every move was guided by some hidden hand, to what purpose, she could not fathom. And these powers-that-be had decided, for no apparent reason, that Gabrielle was doomed to spend her life never knowing a woman's touch. So they had made Xena blind to her desire and had instilled in Gabrielle a feeling, a certainty even, that if she spoke the words, her world would end. One day, she swore, she would find a way to defy them.
Xena was grateful for the queue at the bar, it gave her time to pull herself together. She knew exactly what Gabrielle was suggesting, offering, and wanted it with every fibre of her being. Had wanted it for so long, probably ever since that kiss, Gods, how many years and lifetimes ago was that? Back then, of course, Xena wouldn't have dreamed of doing anything; her beautiful friend was such a young innocent and, Xena assumed, did not feel the same way. But now; maybe it was just a Bard's thing this practice of doubles-entendres and knowing comments but Gabrielle had surely come up with enough of them to make her desires plain. All Xena had to do was make the first move.. And that was the problem. She couldn't. Just couldn't. Like now. She was working herself up to 'persuading' the innkeeper to find them a room but knew that, when the moment came, completely different words would come out of her mouth. Something entirely inane, like "Two bowls of soup. And make it quick!" It was as if, in that split second of crucial action she was frozen, paralysed by some cruel and nameless external force and turned along another path. For a long time she had assumed it was Aphrodite's doing, revenge for all those years Xena had spent as the Chosen of Ares. Now those Gods had lost their powers and still she could not act. There was Something Else at work here, if she could only figure out what.
Returning to the table she found a man in her seat. Ruggedly handsome, blue eyes, blond hair. Wearing armour, a sword and a cloak bearing the emblem of a raven. A Norseman. He was leaning towards Gabrielle, smiling. Instinct told her to draw her sword but her hands were full of soup bowls, so she managed with a boot on his groin and a menacing "Who are you and what do you want?"
"It's OK Xena" Gabrielle said in a tone that clearly suggested the Warrior Princess was over-reacting "This is Snorri. He's a bard too, but making ends meet as a messenger. He's looking for us, well, for you actually."
Xena ignored her friend, put the bowls on the table, her hands on her sword hilt and chakram and growled "You're in my seat, Snorri."
Maybe Gabrielle was right, she was over-reacting but hey! sexual frustration made her cranky.
The man slid out from under her boot and her gaze, stood, inclined his head in a sign of respect and said "Lord Xena. It is a privilege. I bring a message from Odin." She plonked herself down on the chair and unfurled the scroll he proffered. Gabrielle studied her friend's face, looking for clues as to the scroll's content, but could find none.
Done reading Xena asked the man "It's that important?"
"Then tell him I'm coming." Gabrielle thought she detected a slight tone of worry in Xena's voice.
"What is it, Xena? Gabrielle asked when Snorri had left.
Unexpectedly, Xena handed her the scroll.
It's been a long time. Not nearly long enough, but I have no choice. I cannot explain now but suffice it to say the situation is so grave that I sacrifice my pride and risk Grunhilda's wrath to ask for your help. Come without delay.
"Odin? God of the Norsemen?" Gabrielle asked.
"What does he want with you? And who is Grunhilda?"
"Long story, long ago." Xena felt a blush threatening her cheeks and looked down at her plate to hide it.
Mistaking her friend's action for one of regret or shame, Gabrielle said "It's OK Xena, I understand. You did things, bad things, in the past and now you have to go back and fix them."
Bad things? Well, maybe (Oh! she'd been a very bad girl!) but not the kind of bad things Gabrielle was thinking of, it wasn't like that at all. Truthfully Xena had no idea what Odin wanted of her. But... Grunhilda's wrath... must be serious... what was that saying? 'Tartarus hath no fury...' 'Bad things' was a convenient cover story.
"Thanks Gabrielle. It's just, you know. My past. Again." A pause, then: "I love you, you know that-"
"Uh Uh. No. Don't even think of giving me the 'this is something I have to do alone' speech. I'm not a little girl any more, I don't need protecting. My place is at your side. Always. Whatever it is, we do it together."
For some reason, Xena blushed and Gabrielle worried that she was coming across as too intense. She knew Xena generally hated all that touchy-feely-talk-about-your-feelings stuff.
"Anyway" she grinned, "I've never been to the Norse Lands and you know how much I enjoy travel."
"Even on a boat?" Xena was grateful for the change of tack.
Up North it was two coats colder. Colder than at any time in living memory. So cold that these tall hardy strapping Norse -men and -women who would normally never wrap up for winter were driven into fur coats and the welcoming warmth of the taverns. Xena and Gabrielle were already there. Weaving their way through the heaving mass, they spied a small table with three stools; on one was seated an old woman, the other two were empty. They watched as two fearsome looking warrior types approached the table, then moved away rather hastily. "Perhaps she saving the seats for someone" Xena observed, cautious. "Yeah, us. My feet are killing me." Gabrielle forged her way to the table.
"Mind if we sit down?" she asked cheerfully, already sinking onto one of the stools.
"Be my guest" For such an old woman, she had a remarkably young sounding voice, Gabrielle thought, and the brightest blue twinkling eyes. Xena arrived at the table and regarded the old woman with suspicion. "You alright here Gabrielle?"
"Yes thanks. I just... my feet are blocks of ice. I just need to sit down for a while."
"I'll get some drinks in then." Xena headed to the bar.
Gabrielle was aware of the old woman's eyes on her and returned the gaze. The woman smiled and Gabrielle noticed she still had all her teeth. They age well these Norse folk, Gabrielle thought and wondered what the secret was. The woman looked friendly enough and Gabrielle was about to strike up a conversation, when Xena returned bearing drinks: a vast flagon of dark brown frothing ale, and a smaller cup that smelled of wine but was steaming. "What are those?" Gabrielle was a tad perturbed. "This" Xena nodded at the ale "is called skull-splitter. Supposed to be the finest local brew, so they say. And this" placing the cup in front of Gabrielle "is gloo-vine."
"Warm wine. Apparently some traders from the land of the Huns came up here last solstice, selling this stuff. It's become all the rage."
They sat and drank in silence for a while, aware of, but ignoring the old woman.
All around them the conversation was of the weather and whether this was the start of Ragnarok.
"What's Ragnarok?" Gabrielle asked.
"No idea. Sounds like a music festival to me. Perhaps its some kind of solstice celebration."
"Forgive me for interrupting but I couldn't help overhearing" the old woman smiled. "You wanted to know about Ragnarok-"
"Not really," Xena interrupted. "It was just idle speculation." Something about the old woman made her uneasy. Nobody so old had any business looking that good.
"-it's the end of the world."
"Xena! Could that be why-" Gabrielle swallowed the rest of her words as Xena glared at her. Even after all these years, there were times when the girl just didn't know when to keep her mouth shut. Xena hoped the old woman hadn't noticed the exchange or wasn't interested. She had and she was.
"So, is it Ragnarok that brings you to these parts?" the woman asked, too curiously. Xena considered bluffing but she sensed that Gabrielle was in a way-too-trusting sharing mood.
"No idea. All I know is, I got a summons from Odin and he said it was important. You got any thoughts on that?"
"Oh no, I'm just an old woman taking shelter from the cold."
"Of course you are. Then perhaps you can tell me this; how far from here to Valhalla?"
"It's a day's hard ride at the best of times, but now, I'd count on two at least."
"Then we'd better be going. Gabrielle" Xena's voice softened as she addressed her friend "are you alright to travel on?"
"I wouldn't advise it" the old woman said. "The soothsayers have forecast more snow for tonight. Best to stay here until the worst has passed."
"Are you sure we can't stay just one night Xena? I'm so tired, I think it's the cold. And I still can't feel my toes." Gabrielle looked miserable.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle. The sooner we get to Valhalla, the sooner I can find out what's going on. And generally, when the king of the Norse gods demands your presence, it doesn't do to keep him waiting. I could try and get us a cart..."
That was a non starter and Gabrielle knew it. She looked resigned. "Just give me a couple more minutes?"
"Perhaps I could help" the old woman addressed Xena, cautiously. "Your friend could stay here with me. She'll be perfectly safe. I promise I won't let her get into any trouble, though she doesn't look like that kind of girl to me."
Xena was torn. Her instincts told her not to trust this old woman. But she knew that Gabrielle was exhausted and had no wish to put her through the gruelling trip that lay ahead.
"I don't know. Gabrielle, what do you think?"
Gabrielle was torn. How often had it pained her when Xena went off alone, leaving her behind? She should be with her soulmate. If something were to happen to Xena on that long journey, she would never forgive herself. But in her state would she be more hindrance than help? And she was convinced Xena was wrong about this woman who was surely nothing more than a kindly old grandmother offering a chance of much needed rest and pleasant company.
"Are you sure you'll be OK?" Gabrielle could not hide the worry in her voice.
"I'll be fine. I'll send word when I get there. And in a day or so, when the weather clears up, you can join me."
Xena stood up to leave, headed for freezing blizzards, a desperate god and who knew-what-trouble. If ever there was a moment to gather her love up in a passionate embrace, this was it. Instead she managed a gentle hand on Gabrielle's arm and "Don't worry, Gabrielle, I'll be fine, I promise." before turning heel and pushing her way to the door.
"You're very fond of her and she of you." the old woman's observation broke the silence.
"She's my best friend."
"Ah. Is that what they call it in Greece these days?"
"My soulmate." Gabrielle continued, not really paying attention to the old woman's words.
"Really. And there was me, thinking you were from Lesbos."
"Huh? No, Potidaea. Well I am. Xena's from Amphipolis. How d'you know Greece?"
"I don't. I was just- well never mind. Would you like another Gluhwein? To warm you up?"
"Xena says wine doesn't really warm you up, just makes you think-" As if by magic, a waiter appeared with two steaming cups. "-well yes, thank you." It really was good. "I don't know your name," Gabrielle apologised after a few mouthfuls.
"My name is too long and difficult for you to pronounce." The old woman smiled. "But you can call me Mrs L."
"Mrs L. Okay."
"So how long have you two been together?"
Together. The word sent Gabrielle into a frenzy of worry and guilt. She should've gone with Xena. What if something happened? What if Xena died? Ragnarok, the end of the world; that was exactly the sort of thing Xena, always seeking redemption from the sins of her past, would sacrifice herself to prevent. She couldn't lose her love, not again, never again. She should've gone with Xena.
"Gabrielle? Are you alright?"
The girl shook her head to banish the maudlin thoughts. "Yeah, sorry, what were you saying?"
"Nothing important. You're worried about your friend. Don't be child. I'm certain that Xena is more than a match for the weather and anything Odin has in mind." Mrs L's voice was most kindly and reassuring and Gabrielle took comfort from her words. Mostly.
"I know. But still... I wish I knew something about what Odin might want of Xena."
"Did he give you no clue then, in his summons?"
"Not really. He mentioned the wrath of Grunhilda, whoever or whatever that is."
"Grunhilda!" Mrs L fairly yelped with mirth. "Is that all? My dear Gabrielle, you've nothing to fear from her. Then again, maybe you do."
"What d'you mean? Who's Grunhilda?"
"Head of the Valkyries, Odin's warrior handmaidens; they escort the dead heroes to Valhalla. Tall, strong, blond, beautiful; handy with a sword and good in-"
"I get the picture!" Gabrielle wished she didn't. Xena and a blond warrior handmaiden. It had been a while since she'd last felt jealous.
"Grunhilda was Odin's favourite." Mrs L was saying. "Their love affair was the talk of Valhalla. Then they broke up. A messy do. Now, well, I hear they're finally on speaking terms again and may even be getting back together."
"Nobody really knows, but I heard rumours of a dark haired warrior witch who appeared from the south, stole both their hearts and broke them... Gabrielle, are you alright?"
The bard's face was a mask of pain and anger. It wasn't fair. A torrid love triangle turned sour and years later Odin snaps his fingers and Xena comes running. She wasn't in the habit of pandering to wilful gods, but a beautiful blond Valkyrie? And she, poor Gabrielle was left with nothing. Gabrielle knew that many of the things Xena had done in her past life would horrify her but a small part of her couldn't help wishing that they had met back then: at least there would have been... passion - oh stop being coy! - sex! Lots of sex. And she was quite sure, it would've been good.
"Gabrielle?" Mrs L was touching her arm, looking concerned.
"Six years we've been together." Gabrielle mused "A lifetime. We've been through so much, even death couldn't tear us apart. I swear, sometimes I feel like we're an old married couple. It's just..." She tailed off.
"Go on dear, you can tell old Mrs L anything."
Gabrielle knew she couldn't, not really. Those pesky powers-that-be.
"It's just... well, it's just that we missed out on the whole honeymoon part."
"Oh my dear, that's such a shame."
"You don't say!" Gabrielle snapped, immediately regretted it, and apologised.
"No need dear. I know exactly how you feel."
"Oh yes... Can I tell you a secret. In strictest confidence?"
Gabrielle nodded, "Of course."
"I'm not really an old woman, I'm a young princess. I fell in love with Baldur, Frigga's son." The names had no meaning for Gabrielle. "Frigga, queen of the gods. Well she disapproved of me, said I wasn't good enough for her son. So she blinded him to my charms and when I refused to give up my pursuit she turned me into an old crone and forbade me to go anywhere near Valhalla."
"I'm sorry. That's terrible."
"It is. But I haven't given up. When I saw Xena I hope she might help me, but now... perhaps you could help me. Perhaps we can help each other."
"I'd be happy to. But how?"
"I have a cunning plan. Listen now. There is a plant that grows, west of Valhalla..."
There was no snow within the walls of Valhalla but in Odin's Great Hall the atmosphere was more icy than the frozen wastes outside. A wooden table stretched almost the whole length of the room. At one end sat Odin, King of the Norse gods, his thin, lined, white-bearded face set in a mask of displeasure. At the other end his Queen, Frigga, the angular face of an ageing ice maiden set in a mask of worry. Along either wall, the Valkyrie, five to a side, standing rigidly to attention, faces impassive.
Xena entered behind her official escort Grunhilda. The head Valkyrie's position and duties demanded a professional demeanour, but she could not hide the hatred in her eyes.
"Xena. I wish I could say it was a pleasure to see you, but really, it isn't. However, needs must."
Odin clearly wasn't in the mood for explanations and apologies. Xena kept her tone businesslike. "What do you want, Odin?"
"My wife Frigga" Odin nodded towards the other end of the table "and her son Baldur have both had the same dream: a dream of Baldur's death. Baldur's death signals the beginning of Ragnarok, the end of the Gods and of all the world. Obviously we cannot let this happen. To this end Frigga has taken an oath from all things that they will not, cannot harm Baldur."
"I see" said Xena, not seeing at all. "Then what do you need me for? To take the Oath? I've given up my old ways-"
"It occurs to me that, with so many plants and animals and rocks and vapours, one or two may have been missed. And then there is the small matter of Loki."
"The god of mischief. I fear he might make an attempt on Baldur's life."
"So he kills Baldur and his own existence is over, right? Why would he do that?"
"Loki has never been one to see the big picture. He revels only in mischief and he loves a challenge. Right now Baldur is down in the courtyard calling on all gods and heroes to fire stones and arrows into his chest and try to kill him. That is the sort of challenge Loki cannot resist."
"So you want me to find Loki, right?"
"I cannot send any of my heroes or Valkyrie, he knows them all; he is clever and he is cunning and he will never let them find him. You, he does not know. And, if memory serves, you are almost as devious as he."
"I see" said Xena, resisting the impulse to apologise, to tell him she had changed. "So what does he look like?"
"I'm not sure. Loki is a shape-shifter. If he is in human or animal form, people usually only know him by the twinkle in his eyes."
"What's that?" Gabrielle shivered under her many furs, staring at a mess of leaves and white berries clinging to the branch of a tall tree, almost as if they didn't belong there.
"Mistletoe. The tree that makes its home in another tree. That is its magic. It wanders around until it finds a tree that it likes and will latch on. It whispers sweetly to its host so that the tree will love it and let it stay."
"I see" said Gabrielle, not seeing at all.
"When I gather a sprig of mistletoe, I carry it for a while, whisper my love to it and it becomes part of me. Then I will give this sprig to Baldur, it will latch on to him and whisper to him. He will come to love it and through it, me."
"Except that you can't get into Valhalla, which is why you need me."
The old woman nodded. She had pulled off a large twig of the magical plant and was sharpening one end into a point.
"Mrs L, why are you making it into an arrow?"
"My dear girl, Baldur's a burly warrior. He will hardly accept this if he knows it is a gift of love. Most un-heroic. No, we must use subterfuge. Baldur has invited all warriors and heroes to a big party: they are to fire stones and arrows into his chest and in this way he celebrates his immortality."
"So I shoot the arrow..." Remembering Cupid, Gabrielle became concerned. "But if I fire the arrow, won't Baldur fall for me? The last thing I need right now is to be chased by an amorous immortal!"
"Don't worry Gabrielle, you will only be holding the plant for a short time, it will not bond to you."
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle sounded dubious. "Isn't there some way we could sneak you in?"
"Trust me, dear, I very much wish there was. But I am banished and whatever my disguise, I fear they will recognise me."
Gabrielle was moved by the old woman's sad face and the glint in her eyes that must have been tears; she agreed to carry out the plan.
"Thank you Gabrielle. Now, if you want the mistletoe to whisper words to Xena, you must gather some yourself."
In the courtyard at Valhalla, the celebration was in full swing. Eager warriors formed a circle at least five men deep: a heaving mass of singing, drinking, farting, burping merriment. In the open space in the middle, Baldur the Invincible: a big barrel of a man with wild hair, wild beard, and even wilder eyes; stripped down to the waist and seemingly impervious to the cold. A handful of wooden arrows sprouted from his chest. He staggered around clutching a flagon of frothing ale in one hand; with the other he pulled out the arrows and threw them onto the growing pile on the floor. "That all you got for me Olaf?" he slurred. "Bunch o' wimps, the lot of you!" At two arm's length from Baldur (hopefully out of range of even the most errant missile) stood Xena, turning slowly, scanning the crowd looking for a twinkle in an eye, at once fearing and hoping that her search would be futile. Her eyes widened as she spotted Gabrielle push her way to the front of the throng. Her cry of "Gabrielle, what are you doing here?" was drowned out by the wolf-whistles and lewd comments of the drunken crowd.
Gabrielle ignored them, raised the bow that Mrs L had given her and let fly the mistletoe arrow. She was no skilled archer and the twig only just made its target, lodged in Baldur's shoulder. A trickle of blood leaked from his skin.
Then many things happened in quick succession.
"Seize that girl!" bellowed Odin from a window high up in the castle. Four Valkyries appeared from nowhere to do his bidding. Xena cast a quick glance at Baldur's shoulder to reassure herself it was just a flesh wound, then drew her sword and leapt to her friend's aid. Baldur looked in dumb disbelief at the twig and the blood, trying to understand what had happened. His face went pale. He fell to the floor and started choking.
"Baldur! My darling son" Frigga screamed as she flew down from her window high up in the castle. "Somebody, help him. Husband, do something!"
Odin appeared suddenly in front of Xena, his sword at her throat and commanded "Help him. Now!" Xena had no choice but to let Gabrielle be dragged away and turn her attention to Baldur.
He lay still now, his face a deathly white. Xena leaned in close to his face, seeking any sign of breath, found only a trail of beery vomit dribbling from his mouth. Clearing it away with her fingers as best she could, she pinched his nose, put her open moth to his, and blew. Odin, Frigga and every last man in the crowd stood in silence, watching but not understanding; they had never seen such a thing before. Xena pulled her mouth away for a moment, drew a deep breath, then leaned in again. She carried on like this until suddenly Baldur choked up a last mouthful of vomit, drew in a heaving breath, opened his eyes and muttered "What the-"
"He's alive" Frigga exclaimed, the cry then taken up by the massed men. "Oh thank you Xena, thank you!" Almost in tears, Frigga clasped Xena's hands and was reluctant to let them go. Odin could not bring himself to be so effusive; he bowed his head a fraction and said "I don't know how you did it, but you saved his life. For that you have my gratitude."
"It was simple really. Something I learnt from a healer a long time ago..." The rest of Xena's reasoned explanation was lost in the sound of the crowd as each man voiced his own theory on what had just happened. "She's a god, must be-" "-the power of life and death-" "-but I've never heard of-" "I tell you, man, she was kissing him!" "Don't be ridiculous." "I'm serious, it was a kiss. A kiss of life."
"Xena I'm sorry. I never realised the old woman was Loki. I though I was helping her with a love spell."
Xena was keeping Gabrielle company in the dungeon. She was being released today, but there was going to be some delay; everyone in Valhalla was busy with preparations for a great feast.
"It's OK Gabrielle, no real harm done. Good job you're such a poor shot though."
"What happened Xena?"
"Well I don't know exactly but I can say this: it wasn't the arrow and it wasn't poison, though everyone else is still convinced it was. My best guess is that Baldur the Invincible fainted at the sight of his own blood. Then because he was so drunk he threw up and nearly choked to death on his own vomit. For a minute there he couldn't breathe so I gave him my breath. Enough to keep him alive 'till he came round. And that was it. Now everyone in Valhalla wants to make a big deal of it."
"But it is a big deal, Xena. You stopped the end of the world."
"Not sure I believe that. But anyway, they're letting you go, that's the main thing. So are you OK Gabrielle? Have they been treating you well?"
"I'm fine. Grunhilda came and interrogated me. She figured out pretty quickly that I wasn't Loki in disguise but kept on asking questions anyway. Mostly about you and us. I don't think she likes me very much. And she hates you. Xena, what happened here, before? What was so bad that you can't or won't tell me?"
Xena took both of Gabrielle's hands in hers and regarded her with an intensity born of deep love. This was her soulmate, she had a right to know.
"I was heading back from Chin. I heard stories about a place in the North where the people were strong and fearless and the Gods really appreciated the skills of a Warrior. It sounded like my kind of place. I figured to rule such a world would give me more power than I'd ever had. So I came to Valhalla. Except that they don't let just anybody in and they'd never heard of me. I suppose I could've spent some time building up an army and making a name for myself, but there was a lot of competition and I was impatient. I decided the Valkyries were my quickest way in to Valhalla and Grunhilda the quickest way to Odin's side. I... I... I used her and broke her heart."
And enjoyed every minute of it, I bet. Gabrielle thought, wishing, as she often did these days, that she could spend just one night with the Xena of old.
"How touching. The warrior witch and her new companion." Grunhilda was glaring at them, arms crossed, contempt on her face and in her voice.
"Grunhilda! How long have you been-"
"Don't worry Xena, I long ago learnt not to believe a single word you say. I see your skills as an actress have not diminished. You have her completely fooled. Though I must say, I'm not surprised at that; she's hardly a companion worthy of a warrior."
"I'm not a warrior any more Grunhilda. I've changed. Gabrielle changed me."
"Yes of course she did" Grunhilda sneered, unhooking a bunch of keys from her belt. "Enough of the pleasantries. Once again Odin summons you, and you need to dress for the occasion."
The fires blazed in the great hall, the long table was laden with a feast of food and ale and steaming wine. At one end sat Odin, at the other, his queen, Frigga. Ranged along either side, Baldur and his brave warrior heroes, and the Valkyrie. Three seats were empty. Everyone was smiling. Xena and Gabrielle entered, with a still sulking Grunhilda at their back. "Ah Xena! Welcome. And Gabrielle." Odin added as an afterthought.
"What's all this?" Xena asked.
"A feast in your honour. The hero who saved Baldur and saved us all!"
"It was nothing really. I just-"
"Now is not the time for modesty. Now is the time for eating and drinking and boastful song."
That's what got you into this mess. Xena thought, but said "Well Gabrielle and I were planning to set off home-"
"Please Xena, I insist."
"Well then how can we refuse. What's with all the foliage?" Xena nodded at the piles of mistletoe at Frigga's end of the table.
"Punishment. Penance. A lesson for the future." Frigga pronounced solemnly. "I have decreed that this tree-that-lives-on-others, this wretched shrub that tried to bring terrible death shall learn the full meaning of life. Every year, at this time, it shall be stripped from its tree-host, bound with string and hung in the air, never to bond again. It must look down and watch as people everywhere celebrate the continuation of life, with a kiss."
Odin looked slightly embarrassed. "You must forgive my wife Xena. Sometimes even the Queen of the gods can get some foolish girlish notions."
"I think it sounds like a lovely celebration" Gabrielle piped up. Xena glared at her: Shut up. "What, Xena? Well it is. It sure beats drinking yourself into a stupor and choking on your own vomit."
"Gabrielle! " Xena hissed as Odin's eyes widened and Baldur flushed with embarrassment.
"It pains me to say it, my Lord, but the girl's got a point." Grunhilda didn't bother to hide her contempt for Gabrielle as she stepped up to face Odin. "It was a kiss that saved Baldur and so with a kiss that the glorious event should be remembered." She had moved to kneel at Odin's side, and was looking into his eyes. "In fact, it would honour us all if you would start this tradition." The plea, the dare, was mirrored in her expression.
"Grunhilda" Odin muttered, "not here! My wife."
Frigga, entirely used to her husband's affairs, merely rolled her eyes and said "Oh please, don't let me stop you."
Odin was not to be persuaded. "No, there is one here more fitting than I to start this ceremony. Xena, it was your kiss that saved Baldur. Please, will you do the honours?" It was a command, disguised as a request. A sprig of mistletoe was passed up the table to Xena's hand. Xena and Gabrielle faced each other, filled with longing, but frozen in the moment before action. Which would prevail, the cruel whims of the nameless powers-that-be or the will of Odin? They leaned forward, their faces so close. Around them they could sense the expectations of the room, almost hear the impatient thoughts screaming 'What are you waiting for? For Frigg's sake get on with it!' For Frigga, then, and Odin, and life. Their lips met. Mouths opened. Tongue greeted tongue and unleashed torrents of desire. Locked in passionate embrace they closed their eyes and waited for their world to end.